Homeless share in the conversation
By Raymond Perrier
I suspect most readers are Zoomed out by now – months of attending meetings via a laptop has made us blasé about on-line events. But a group of homeless men and women were Zoom novices this week and their presence re-invigorated the rest of us who were engaging with them.
We were all attending the annual two-day National Conversation about Homelessness, the fourth such event and the first to be held on-line. Lockdown restrictions prevented a face-to-face conference, but there was a huge benefit in casting the net wider.
Last year’s event in Bloemfontein was attended by only two homeless people. This week, drop-in computer rooms were created in three cities that enabled two dozen homeless people to participate.
Meleen de Koker, a homeless woman originally from Cape Town, who attended the meeting said: “I have never used a computer before but I’m getting there. I love talking and I’m not afraid of standing up for the homeless network.”
In all, 250 people registered for the event across the country – three times more than the previous peak. And it was a truly national conversation with sign-ups from 15 towns and cities (plus a few from overseas). This was a good reminder to us that, as well as the very visible problem of homelessness in our metros, there is a less visible issue in places like Ceres, Mahikeng and eSikhawini.
The majority of participants were from NGOs and faith-based organisations since they are the ones who provide the backbone of services to the homeless community. There were also concerned individuals, academics and 19 government officials who had signed up.
Many felt that Covid-19 had drawn closer attention to homelessness: when we were all locked down in our homes, the plight of those who did not have homes became all the more poignant. The National Homeless Network, which hosts these annual conversations, believes its letter to the Presidency in early March resulted in the specific mention in his lockdown announcement that homeless people should be sheltered.
Applying lessons from Covid-19 was one of the focuses of the meeting. The repeated pattern, reported from across the country, was that the best responses were ones where the government worked closely with NGOs and with the homeless themselves. When the government did not seek advice, or ignored the advice given, the results tended to be ineffective, unsustainable or wasteful of resources – and multiple examples were shared.
The response to Covid-19 highlighted an inconsistency which also came up in sessions that looked at shelters, health care, addiction support and law enforcement. While in some provinces homeless people get access to government health care, in others they do not; some municipalities fund shelters
but others refuse to do so; some see addiction as an illness needing treatment and support, others as a criminal act best addressed by random punishment.
Depending on which city’s streets you are on as a homeless person, law enforcement might fine you, destroy your belongings, beat you up, or just ignore you.
In the absence of a national strategy and consistent standards of service delivery, the lives (and the rights) of homeless people are a lottery based on the whim of local government and the capacity of civil society to fill in the gaps.
There was sharing of best practices as well as frustrations. This enables organisations to build on each other’s work, taking an idea from one city and trying it in another.
The tone of the meeting was set in a quotation from Steve Biko: “In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.”
The faces of homeless people and those who work with them – albeit transmitted through technology – were a reminder of the humanity that is wasted when people are left homeless.
Biko was quoted by Lorenzo David of Community Chest, the keynote speaker; he reported on the Inkathalo Conversations being conducted with homeless people in Cape Town. He asked us to wonder how much more galvanised our response to homelessness as a society would be if we started seeing it as a fundamental injustice on a par with racism and sexism.
Anne Slatter from iCare in Durban commented: “Lorenzo drew on Martin Luther King’s quote about the need for love and power. As NGOs, we sometimes fear that we have love but no power. Bringing together dozens of like-minded organisations – and some supportive government officials – has reminded us that we have love and power and we can use them to transform lives.”
The closing address was given by Professor Stephan de Beer from the University of Pretoria’s Centre of Faith and Community, and founder of the National Homeless Network. He described homelessness as “a window to our collective failure as a society”: a reminder of the failures of our families, our education system, our economy and our cities.
He charged all present to counter this by imagining a radically new kind of city: an alternative that is both humane and just.
- Perrier is the director of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban.
The Independent on Saturday